Bill Bissonnette

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Bill Bissonnette, July 2010

William "Bill" Bissonnette (1921 - 7 January 2016) was a World War II veteran, automobile worker, and wood carving enthusiast who lived his whole life in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Early life

He was born circa 1921 to Ethel and Raymond Bissonnette.

He had a younger sister, (Helen) Shirley Friday (1 December 1925 - 16 November 2014). [1] According to her obituary, Shirley "adored" her older brother Bill and "spoke fondly of their happy, carefree childhood years". Shirley attended local schools in Port Arthur and upon graduating from Port Arthur Collegiate Institute, began working as a teller in a bank.

Marriages and family

Bill was married twice, first to Marion, who died, and then to Mary.

With Marion he had three children:

  • Marilyn (Albert Wrigglesworth)
  • Nancy (Paul)
  • Raymond "Ray"

With Mary, he adopted her children:

  • Kim
  • Cheryl (Petri)
  • Derek (Sheri)

At the time of his death he also had grandchildren:

  • Katie
  • James
  • Alex

Career

Bill served with the RCAF during World War II and, upon his return, he worked for the Ford Motor Company until retiring in 1986.

Bill was my parts manager for over 20 years and he was one real good guy to work for as i thought of him often since retiring and really sorry for his passing and my thoughts are with the family. God Bless You Bill and thanks for the good years working for you.
— Terry Bruley, Thunder Bay, 12 January 2016 [2]

Later life

Bissonnette was a life member of the Royal Canadian Legion-Slovak Branch 129, and the Thunder Bay Woodcarvers.

Bill's house, 72 Hill Street South, Thunder Bay, Ontario

He lived for about 50 years until his death, at 72 Hill Street South, right across the street from Michael Currie.

When Michael was a boy, Bill would make for him and his friends (such as Matt Steele) wooden toy guns that could be mounted with elastic bands to be shot at people. This was thrilling for the young lads, as the toys were somewhat dangerous.

From left: Eric Miller, Bill Bissonnette, Michael Currie. Taken at 72 Hill Street South on 30 December 2009.

On 30 December 2009 Michael and neighbour Eric Miller visited Bill to see a tour of his wood carving shop.

Thunder Bay Masters Swimming members, 22 February 2013. Bill's wife Mary is seated on the far left.

Bill was also one of the original members of Thunder Bay Masters Swimming, which swims at the Canada Games Complex.

During the 1990s he and his second wife Mary would take long holidays in their Recreational Vehicle (RV), travelling around the country.

World War II Service

Bill served with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War II.

Bill took part in the torch-passing ceremony with Capt. Darla Oja (left) at the 11 November 2014 Remembrance Day ceremonies held at Fort William Gardens in Thunder Bay.
Among the most important VIPS who came out to view the Lancaster were a handful of veterans who had flown in the aircraft during WWII. One who was obviously excited to be there was Bill Bissonnette, who flew as a navigator with 106 Squadron, an RAF unit based at Kirmington, Lincolnshire in eastern England. By the time he was 23 years old, Bill had flown a full tour of 30 missions in Lancasters—no mean feat at a time when casualty rates in Bomber Command were the highest of any branch of the services. Talking to him, it was clear that Bill had fond memories of his time flying Lancasters. He had with him a copy of a poem by Audrey Grealy, entitled “Lancasters” which includes the following verse—a verse which more than anything reflects the feelings that Bill and his fellow airman had for the plane that they flew.

The Lancs are no more, they are part of legend,

But memory stays bright in the hearts of the men,

Who loved them and flew them through flak and through hellfire,

And, managed to land them in England again.
— Fly North, July-September 2010

He gave Michael Currie his business card at our family Christmas party on 26 Dec 2013, which was the last time Michael saw him.

Pages from Raymond Bissonnette's Flight Log Book from June 1944. Note that the night flights are marked in red and those in green are day flights.
We Royal Air Force No. 166 Squadron went from there to an OT [Operational Training Unit], operational training unit; and this one, when an operational training unit started a new class, they would send equal numbers of pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, rear gunners and wireless operators. And you all milled around together on ground school for about a week or 10 days. And you picked your own crew. I can still remember, well, like I was an officer, and I was in the officers’ mess, that all the other were sergeants and I was milling around. This one evening I was in the officers’ mess and this little short fellow come over; and he said, I say, he said, have you got a pilot yet? I says, no. He says, how’d you like to be my navigator? I said, I’d love to. Boy, that was the best thing I ever did.

We formed a crew. We were going to go to a squadron. First of all, we were going to go on four engine planes [such as the Avro Lancaster heavy bomber] and so we had to go to a conversion unit [training crews on different aircraft]. Basically for the pilot to learn how to fly four [engine planes] and that’s where you needed two more crew members. You needed another gunner and a flight engineer. So they just issued us, well, they said, yeah, the pilot’s from Birmingham, here’s a flight engineer from Birmingham. And they handed us a mid-upper, we got a 19 year old mid-upper gunner from Scotland. And there we were, a crew.

And then it was time to go to a squadron. Now, everywhere you looked in England, there were airports of all different descriptions, but there was a list of the squadrons that had openings for crews and my pilot’s looking at the list. Oh, he said, well, there’s Bill Grant, he was a pilot that he’d gone all through his pilot training with, and he was his best buddy. And Grant had been picked at [RAF] Kirmington. And he said, you don’t mind if we go to Kirmington, do you? We don’t care if we go to Kirmington or not. It’s all the same to us, so we went to Kirmington.

When the navigators were finally finished and we were coming out and the bus was going to drive us around and I’m walking out with Bill Grant’s navigator. And I said, I bet you a bob (that’s a shilling or a quarter), I said, I bet you a bob we beat you back. He said, you’re on. So when you got back, the busses picked up each individual crew and as soon as you got to the debriefing room, the pilot went and signed the board up there and that’s the order, because there was only three or four officers to talk to all those crews, so whatever, who’s turn it was… We looked at it, hey, he owes me a bob. Only problem was, they never came back. It was Gelsenkirchen [Germany]; it was our fifth trip and they just went missing on that one. Nobody ever did know what happened to them, blew up, whatever. They never came back.

It was a daylight [flight] again. Lucky, if you could call getting hit by flack [anti-aircraft fire] lucky. But we got hit, but we were all right; the motors were all working. And we got back to the base, and this is where we’re getting ready to go on final approach and the flight engineer says, look at that starboard wheel; and the starboard wheel was just going flop, flop, flop, flop, a flat tire on it. I went, oh, shit. So we called up the tower and said, we’ve got a flat tire on the starboard wheel, what do you recommend? Now, we were the first ones back. He said, don’t land here. And wartime England, there was three special aerodromes [airfields] made for emergency landings. There was [RAF] Woodbridge in the south, [RAF] Manston in the Midlands and [RAF] Carnaby in the north.

And basically what these were was one big long, long runway, you could land with no brakes and just, you had enough room to coast until you stopped. Not only that, if you got in there in a dead fog, you knew you were there because your radar said, I’m right over top of it, but I can’t see it. They had pipes down both sides of the runway and both ends with holes in them; and they’d just run gas in it and set it on fire, and it burned the fog away. I remember one pilot saying that he’d had to land once like that, burning the fog away, and he says, it’s just like trying to land in the gates of hell.

Anyway, we got up to Carnaby. We told them our problem: we’ve got a flat tire on the starboard side, and have you got any recommendations? And he said, well, you’ve got two choices. He said, you can leave the wheels up and just belly it in or you can try and land it on the one wheel and the tail wheel like a bicycle. My pilot said, we’re not going to belly it in. He says, everybody in crash position. Well, my crash position, I’m sitting on the floor, my back against the wings bar, it was right, big, fairly high; and the wireless operator was sitting on one side of me and the mid-upper gunner was sitting on the other side of me and their intercom cord would reach their station, so they knew what was going on. Mine wouldn’t reach. I’m just sitting there waiting for it to happen. And he just, oh, the best landing he ever made. Just greased it down. It was a nice bright sunny Sunday afternoon and he just greased it on there just like a bicycle, and down.
— Bill Bissonnette, speaking for the Memory Project

Death

He died 7 January 1996.

Sad Michael but he had a good life. Mary said the legion will have a ceremony at his funeral to acknowledge his service. Well deserved.
— Neighbour Tracey Steele, private email to Michael Currie, 16 January 2016

Obituary

Mr. William (Bill) Bissonnette, aged 94 years of Thunder Bay, passed away peacefully on January 7, 2016. Bill served with the RCAF during World War II and, upon his return, he worked for the Ford Motor Company until retiring in 1986. He was a life member of the Royal Canadian Legion-Slovak Branch 129, and the Thunder Bay Woodcarvers. Bill is survived by his wife Mary, children Marilyn (Albert), Nancy (Paul) and Raymond; step-children Kim, Cheryl (Petri) and Derek (Sheri); grandchildren Katie, James and Alex. Predeceased by his first wife Marion and sister Shirley Friday. A funeral mass will be held at 10am on January 22, 2016 at Corpus Christi Church presided over by Father Alan Albao. In lieu of flowers, donations to St. Joseph's Foundation (Hospice), Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Foundation or a local charity of your choice would be greatly appreciated by the family.

Sources

Chronicle-Journal [3]

Fly North, the newsletter of the Northwestern Ontario Aviation Heritage Centre, Volume 2, Number 3: July-September 2010 [4]

The Memory Project [5]

Chronicle Journal. World War II Legend Patrick Brophy Dies. Publication: Chronicle-Journal, 31 Jan 1991, p. 13 [6]

CBC. Thunder Bay Residents Observe Remembrance Day. 11 November 2014. [7]

Obituary of Helen Shirley Friday, 16 November 2014. [8]

Tweet from Cathy Alex, 11 November 2015. [9]